'A Bronx Tale' embraces Italian American stereotypes
Letter to Chicago Sun Times,
March 21, 2009
In 1915, American filmmaker D.W. Griffith produced a horrific cinematic
masterpiece, "The Birth of A Nation," a Civil War epic in which
members of the Ku Klux Klan are seen as avenging heroes saving the South
from criminally inclined blacks. No less than Woodrow Wilson, the president
of the United States, praised Griffith's film as "history written
in lightning" -- a remark he later regretted once the NAACP began
mounting protests against the film across the country.
The controversial nature of "The Birth of a Nation" has never subsided
but one thing is certain: the film's racist images of African Americans were
forever neutralized by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a symbol of how
far we've come as a nation in rejecting crude but often popular stereotypes about
an entire people, both at the movies and in real life.
It is, therefore, puzzling to see a show like Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx
Tale" take center stage at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental
Theatre in President Obama's home city of Chicago. Originally a one-act play, "A
Bronx Tale" is now a rehash of Palminteri's 1993 film -- and a work whose
loving embrace of stereotypes seems out of place in the Obama era.
Like Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" film, which does to Italian
Americans what Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" did to blacks, "A
Bronx Tale" promotes ideas that people now see as typically "Italian":
New York, urban, violent, racist, mob guys, neighborhood types, stunted lives.
These images are so implanted in the public psyche that people are genuinely
shocked when I tell them that the earliest Italian communities in America were
in New Orleans and California in the 1850s, where farming and small businesses
When pressed in interviews, Palminteri has admitted that good people like his
real-life father far outnumbered any bad apples in his old neighborhood. Indeed,
the Bronx also produced artists such as author Don DeLillo, painter Ralph Fasanella
and Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, born Anna Italiano -- not exactly
A more troubling irony is that theatergoers leaving the Chicago theater might
not have realized that Obama's new home, Washington D.C., is a great example
of how deep our nation's Italian roots grow. Our entire style of government --
a tri-partite political system, including a Senate, a voting system based on
ballots, a concern for citizens' rights, Latin mottos, domed buildings -- was
modeled after classical Rome, a "res publica" -- republic -- embraced
by the Founding Fathers.
One of those founders, Thomas Jefferson, had a neighbor named Filippo Mazzei,
a Florentine political writer who assisted Jefferson draft the Declaration of
Independence. And in addition to living in a Palladio-style home (Monticello: "little
mountain" in Italian) and introducing wine-making to Virginia, Jefferson
recruited Sicilian musicians in 1805 in his quest to professionalize the U.S.
A final irony: The magnificent Lincoln Memorial, a source of inspiration during
Obama's pre-inauguration ceremonies, was sculpted by the Piccirilli brothers
-- who were from the Bronx!
By all accounts, Palminteri is a nice man, a gifted writer and a loving husband
and father -- the very antithesis of the violent thug Sonny, whom he lionizes
in his scripts. But to watch him regurgitate "A Bronx Tale" is to see
someone who, to quote his father in the play, "is wasting his talent." And
it is a stark reminder that, at least in popular culture, Italian-American actors,
writers and directors have yet to benefit from the nation's inspirational creeds
of hope and change.
Bill Dal Cerro
Italic Institute of America